The visitor waited outside the south gate of Casa Bell. Like anyone else who passes by the enormous new home of Toronto Blue Jay outfielder George Bell, the visitor could not help but gawk at this white stucco palace, gleaming in the early-morning Caribbean sun. He called out to Carmelo, a thin, middle-aged man in a Blue Jay cap who was watering the lawn, but Carmelo shook his head. "George not up," said Carmelo. The visitor would have to wait. Carmelo couldn't open the gate for anyone without Bell's permission.
The streets of San Pedro de Macoris, a port city of 90,000 on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic, were yawning awake at slightly past eight. Vendors on bicycles with wooden trays pedaled to work, children walked along the streets, car horns beeped at pesky motor scooters. From outside the gate of Casa Bell, which rises out of a ramshackle, dirt-street neighborhood, the visitor could see the stained-glass windows, the fountains, the moat, the peacocks roaming the manicured lawns, the satellite dish. After 10 minutes or so, voices could be heard, and soon Carmelo walked briskly toward the wrought iron gate and beamed the remote control device to open it.
On the back porch, dressed in jeans and sandals, coffee cup in hand, George Bell emerged.
"I'm getting old," he said, stretching his sleepy limbs. "So now I work out in the mornings and run a few miles every afternoon. The life of an old man." He laughed.
Bell turned 30 on Oct. 21, two weeks after Toronto was beaten by Oakland for the American League pennant to end another tempestuous season for Bell and the Blue Jays. After beginning the year with high hopes, the Jays staggered to a 12-24 start, which led to the firing of manager Jimy Williams. Thus ended a long and ugly feud between Williams and Bell that boiled over in the '88 season when Bell suggested that Toronto was not big enough for both of them. Through it all, Bell, who has never been accused of being a diplomat, fell afoul of the Blue Jay faithful and at one point last season issued a challenge to Canadian fans to "kiss my Dominican ass."
The Williams episode only added to Bell"s reputation as a sometimes sullen, sometimes hotheaded, often irritating personality. During his six seasons as a regular in Toronto, his run-ins with umpires, reporters and teammates have done little to dispel the notion that Bell is a malcontent with as he himself puts it, "a malo temper." And so when the Blue Jays floundered and Williams was fired, Bell was considered a prime culprit.
Still, the Blue Jays went on to win their division as Bell caught fire in a near-MVP season. When he returned home to the Dominican Republic for the winter, he had these '89 stats to help celebrate his 30th birthday: .297, 18 homers, 104 RBIs. Three weeks later he moved into his new house in San Pedro and there, with his wife, Marie, and four young sons, he settled into his laid-back life as a Dominican squire, loving father, grateful son, local hero, benevolent friend to children and generous purveyor of great charity. Huh? George Bell?
Bell finishes his morning coffee and goes inside to change. A few minutes later, he throws a large Blue Jay duffel bag out of an upstairs window onto the back lawn. Then another bag comes flying out and another. Poppy, a man Bell describes as "a childhood friend, companion and handyman," carries the three bags onto the porch and begins emptying the contents, a potpourri of athletic equipment. Carmelo and a fellow named Aria—a solidly built man with a revolver tucked in his belt, whom Bell calls "my chauffeur and bodyguard"—join Poppy to help sort the equipment. Meanwhile three of Bell's children, along with two maids and another handyman, gather around to watch.
There are 52 shoes, some new, some with Bell's number, 11, inscribed in Magic Marker, others with 10 and 12 and 30, all of which Poppy tries to pair off. There are a few dozen wristbands, a box of new American League baseballs, four dozen batting gloves, three dozen rolls of adhesive tape, two helmets and one mesh uniform top. When the sorting process is complete, Bell reappears in sweat pants, rubber jersey and Blue Jay cap, carrying three bats and his glove. He picks out a pair of shoes, stuffs 10 new balls into a sanitary stocking, puts his selected equipment into one of the duffels, carries it to the driveway and slings it into the trunk of his Mercedes. Bell motions to his eldest son, Christopher, 9, who climbs into the car. Says George to his visitor, "We're going to a ballpark my daddy helped build 20 years ago." He pushes the remote gate-opener on the sun visor and pulls into the street.
If he had turned left, Bell would have passed, in the space of three blocks, the homes of fellow major leaguers Alfredo Griffin and Joaquin Andujar, as well as a sign for Andujar Blocks, Joaquin's concrete block company, which Bell used in constructing his house—and his new office building. Just down the street, visible from the front lawn of Casa Bell, is a seven-story building nearing completion. "When it's done," Bell says proudly, "it will be the tallest building in San Pedro."